Margaret and Dick   


October '09 - La Camargue

The abrivado at the Limoux féria had stirred our interest in the Camargue, a pocket of France that has a bit of Wild West flavor.  A delta tucked between the two branches of the Rhone as it flows into the Mediterranean, the Camargue is flat, isolated, full of mosquitoes, and fascinating in its traditions:  white horses, wild bulls, rice, wine, salt, and strong characters.  Friend Steve accompanied us on our adventure.

At the town of Salin de Giraud, named for its sea-salt industry, we had the good fortune to see a course Camarguaise, a sport of nerves, fast-twitch muscles, and testosterone.  In this contest of
man-against-bull, the bulls live to fight another day and, in fact, their laureats are announced as they enter the ring.  Young men run up to pull ribbons off the bull’s horns, the bull chases, the young men leap over the fence to escape, and the cycle repeats until either all ribbons are harvested or the 15-minute time limit is reached.  The feistier bulls are saved for the later contests, by which time the men are showing signs of fatigue.  It gets interesting, and not all the escapes are successful.

Our friend Arnaud had recommended that we stay with his friends Blaise and Brigitte de Sambucy, who make a few rooms available as B&B.  We pay close attention when Arnaud offers a bonne adresse, because we know the people will be memorable.  After this trip, I think the letters B&B will always be associated with Blaise and Brigitte.  As evening fell we headed past the town of Arles to our bonne adresse in the countryside.  It took two tries to find the inconspicuous driveway that led, a full kilometer later, to the house.  Brigitte phoned to order pizzas and sent Blaise to pick them up.  Margaret joked, “What, they don’t deliver?”  Brigitte explained, “We don’t really want people to know the way out here.  We like our privacy.” And privacy they have, in a stately home on 700 acres.  We knew, when the pizza was cut, the wine was poured, and conversation began to flow, that we were in good hands.  I admired a Van Gogh print in their living room and then recognized the long driveway and stately home in the background.  Good hands, indeed.

Blaise has an impressive bearing and a fine sense of humor.  Like many of his ancestors and like his son after him, he attended the National Cavalry School; a painting on the wall in his study shows a de Sambucy with the Napoleonic army in Russia.  Brigitte has twinkly eyes, a sharp intelligence, and a lot of charm.  We loved the photos of their dearly departed pet boar, Creu-Creu (think Snort-Snort with a French accent), adopted and spoon-fed as a tiny baby after his mother had been killed in a hunt.  He grew up to be an affectionate if hulking pet, happily living and sleeping with the family hunting dogs.  Creu-Creu accompanied Brigitte on walks, even when she was out hunting his relatives.  Blaise loves to tell about the day that Creu-Creu decided to take a swim in the pool.  Blaise jumped in after him, grabbed him by the ear, pulled the beast to the stairway end of the pool, and gave him what-for.  From that day on, Creu-Creu took long detours around the pool to avoid similar incidents.

We followed our hosts' recommended itinerary for our day in Arles.  To understand the historical context, we began at the Musée d’Arles Antique, full of Roman artifacts from the era when Arles was a regional capital of the Roman empire.  In modern-day Arles, developers hesitate to dig, because any construction project produces ancient artifacts that must be assessed by archeologists before construction can continue. 

Modern uses of the ancient treasures help preserve them.  The ancient Roman theatre hosts summer festival plays and concerts.  The Roman arena, beautifully restored, now serves as a bull ring for the fight-to-the-finish corrida, continuing the gladiator tradition.  Blaise had taken us to a hilltop to show us, from a good distance, the Spanish toros that are grazing on his land.  Bulls for the corrida are isolated from human contact.  To assess corrida potential, each yearling is introduced into a ring with a human.  If the bull charges, he’s got potential.  If not, he’s off to the slaughterhouse.  As noted in a prior story, we’re no longer convinced that animals raised in agribusiness are better off than corrida bulls that enjoy a wild paradise until their last few minutes of life.

The Romans loved this region for its vineyard and wine possibilities.  Innumerable clay amphorae, used to store and transport wine, remain undiscovered underground.  Another Arnaud bonne adresse is the winery of Hervé Durand, who has painstakingly recreated Roman winemaking traditions – bare feet and original recipes and all – at Mas des Tourelles.   The winery features a reconstructed Roman wine press, where a two-ton tree trunk is lowered onto the grapes in the press.  The Roman wines, one spiced with fenugreek, some sweetened with honey, all contain some sea water for preservation.  The Roman wines were interesting, and we bought a few to surprise friends, but I admit I greatly prefer his fine modern wines.

No visit to the Camargue would be complete without a pilgrimage to the village of Les-Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer,
where the three Saints Mary (Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome, Mary Jacobe) are said to have landed, together with their servant Black Sara, in flight from persecution after Jesus’ death.  Probably a dark-skinned Nubian from southern Egypt or Sudan, Black Sara has become patron saint of the gypsies.  Every year in May, some 30,000 gypsies descend on the tiny town for a religious pilgrimage, leaving offerings to ensure their safe survival during another year on the road.  Outside the church, a gypsy woman proposed that we buy a religious medal, as “an offering to support our traditions.”  Steve thought we should have asked, “Yes, but how do we know that you are the person we’re supposed to give the money to?”  Perhaps we can use that line in the future with Atlanta panhandlers.

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